I. What is Comic Relief?
Even in an intense, dramatic movie, you can find moments of humor. Maybe a character is facing an impossible epic quest, but makes witty comments to lighten the mood. Or maybe two characters are suffering through a difficult divorce, but one of them cracks a joke to cut the tension. It’s just like in real life – we often make jokes to ease the burden of difficult circumstances. In storytelling, this is called comic relief.
It’s important to remember the relief part of comic relief. In a funny movie, for example, there’s no need for comic relief – there’s just regular comedy. Comic relief is when the comedy takes place in a story that’s dramatic, tragic, or serious overall, not comedies.
II. Types of Comic Relief
Comic relief comes in two forms, which can often be found side-by-side in the same book or movie:
- Internal Comic Relief is when the joke is actually part of the story – for example, the character makes a joke and other characters laugh. We’re laughing with the characters.
- External Comic Relief is when the audience laughs, but the characters themselves don’t. This could happen, for example, when a character slips on a banana peel: nobody onscreen is laughing, but the audience still finds it funny. We’re laughing at the characters.
III. Examples of Comic Relief
“I don’t think he knows about second breakfast, Pip!”
“What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn’t he?” (Merry and Pippin, The Fellowship of the Ring)
Merry and Pippin provide constant comic relief in the Lord of the Rings movies. These hobbits seem to be in good spirits nearly all the time, especially in the Fellowship of the Ring, when they’re surrounded by friends. As the Fellowship breaks apart, however, Merry and Pippin become less and less humorous – the strain of the quest begins to wear out their humor.
Fortunately, the dwarf Gimli continues to provide laughs for the audience. Note that Gimli is external comic relief (he has silly behaviors that make the audience laugh, but nobody else seems to notice them, and Gimli himself is usually not trying to be funny), whereas Merry and Pippin are both external and internal (they deliberately make jokes to each other and are always smiling).
There are examples of comic relief in real life, too. For example, all the American founding fathers took on an extraordinary risk when they decided to break away from the British government. Had the revolution failed, they would have all been executed as traitors. Knowing this, they all tried to stick together and watch each others’ backs. Benjamin Franklin, a notoriously clever man, once joked that “we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
IV. The Importance of Comic Relief
In literature, as in life, everyone needs a good laugh now and again. While great writing often deals with negative emotions, you don’t want your story to get too grim, depressing, scary, or tense. To prevent this from happening, writers sprinkle in a little humor here and there. This dates back at least to Shakespeare, who often put humorous characters in even his darkest plays – plays like Macbeth and Hamlet.
Comic relief is everywhere these days, but it’s pretty hard to find in ancient literature. Greek literature, for example, was either comedy or tragedy and these were terrifyingly sad from beginning to end. So what happened? No one knows for sure, but the answer is probably that modern writers are more interested in realism than their Greek predecessors. In real life, of course, our emotions are all mixed together, not cleanly separated – we experience joy and laughter alongside sadness. Modern literature imitates this complex emotional reality.
V. Examples of Comic Relief in Literature
Hamlet: But what is your affair in Elsinore? …
Horatio: My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.
Hamlet: I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student; I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.
Horatio: Indeed, my lord, it follow’d hard upon.
Hamlet: Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked-meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Shakespeare was a master of comic relief. This scene comes from Hamlet, a dark tragedy full of betrayal, murder, madness, and lust. Yet in this scene, Hamlet makes a dry joke about his mother’s marriage – his father died very recently, and Hamlet is offended by the fact that his mother is remarrying so quickly. He feels intense pain at this, but he still makes a joke about it, commenting that his mother is just trying to save money by serving the same food at both the funeral and the wedding.
The world of The Hunger Games is extremely bleak and there’s very little hope or happiness to be found anywhere. This is especially true for tributes in the training center, who are facing almost certain death in the arena. But one of the tributes, Finnick, makes a joke out of the whole thing. At one point, he tells Katniss that he’s going to show her “the best knot to know in the arena,” then ties a noose and pretends to hang himself with it. This macabre joke is a pretty literal example of gallows humor.
VI. Examples in Popular Culture
“You think you can steal from us and just walk away?”
(The Dark Knight)
The Joker provides an odd sort of internal comic relief within the Batman universe. In recent years, Batman movies and comic books have become increasingly dark and gritty, but the main villain is still a deranged clown – the Joker. Though this killer is frightening and murderous, he still cracks jokes at odd moments. In this scene from The Dark Knight, he’s being threatened by a gang kingpin and simply laughs about it.
“I am not threatening the King, sir, I am educating my nephew. Bronn, the next time Ser Merynn speaks, kill him. That was a threat. See the difference?” (Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones)
Tyrion Lannister provides great comic relief on Game of Thrones. The show as a whole is remarkably dark and emotionally intense – dealing with all sorts of betrayal, violence, and deceit. But Tyrion is a deeply cynical character, and these things roll right off his back. In this scene, Tyrion has shown incredible bravery, defying the King (his nephew) and explaining to him that a just king must be merciful and wise. He is even brave enough to crack a joke at the expense of the Kingsguard.
VII. Related Terms
Cynicism is a pessimistic or negative view of the world – a suspicious attitude toward sentimental attachments and a tendency to view the world as a grim, unhappy place. Though this doesn’t sound like a very funny philosophy, cynical characters actually make for great comic relief, because the bad things in the world don’t affect them as much. They already take a dim view of the world, so nothing really upsets them and they’re able to make jokes at pretty much anything. Their brand of comic relief usually comes in the form of dark comedy. Tyrion Lannister (see §9) is a great example of a cynical character.
Dark Comedy/Gallows Humor
This is when you make jokes about a serious matter: death, disease, terrorism, addiction, war, injustice, slavery, etc. (“Gallows” are the wooden structures used to hang criminals.) These things aren’t funny. But at the same time, making fun of them can help make sense of the world’s ills, and humor is a healthy way to deal with negative experiences. This kind of humor can come across as offensive if it’s done carelessly, but it can be very effective if crafted thoughtfully. The TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is built almost entirely on dark humor, as each episode makes light of a death, a catastrophe, or some terrible behavior by a main character.